The one on her stomach said, “Eat Wheaties.” It was kind of clever, kind of dumb, totally whatever; Stewart could look at it and still awaken the champion within. The new one on her ass was something else. “Made you look,” it said. “See? This ad worked.” It wasn’t even advertising a product, it was advertising advertising, which was somehow worse than the one on her inner thigh, the one with a Sprite logo that said, “Obey your thirst.”
Stewart tried to concentrate on her ass, the abstracted ass, the woman bent over the bed, the offering, but the tattoo was making him look and he felt himself flagging, shrinking, sputtering. The engine was out and the plane was spiraling down; his stiffy was a goner.
“What’s wrong?” she said.
“Nothing,” he said. “Just realized I was thirsty.”
So he put on his mask and went to work. You didn’t have to wear it until you were within a block of The Facility, but he liked to wear it on the train, liked the girding embrace of anonymity. It was the same as wearing sunglasses, only better. In the mask he experimented with new walks, wiggly-hip walks, Paul-Bunyan-stride walks.
Train commuters knew the mask came from The Facility. Sometimes they leaned in and asked if it did anything, like was it a gas mask or something? But no, it was just a mask; all it did was cover his face, stand between him and the world, expose itself to keep him private.
No one at The Facility was allowed to know what anyone else looked like. You weren’t allowed to use names either. You picked a clip out of a bucket in the lobby and you were Red Fox for the day, or Apple Dove. It was like a convention of bank robbers playing theater games.
His job was to push a button every thirty-two seconds. That and nothing else. He didn’t know what the button did, although he had noticed that it seemed to light up every time a lever-puller pulled his lever. The button-pushers all felt pity and contempt for the lever-pullers, but they envied the touch-screen scrollers. When you got to touch-screen scroller you’d made it.
Being a button-pusher gave you a lot of time to think. That day, as Mason-Jar Tarantula, Stewart thought about Candy’s new ad tattoo.
Made you look. This ad worked.
A new tat meant that she planned to keep working at Bottoms Up. It meant that she didn’t have faith in him. Ass tats paid every time you took off your clothes, double when you shook it, triple when someone slapped it.
He’d never been to one of her shows. Her profession humiliated him. He got upset when she tried any lap-dance stuff, though sometimes he tried to be dirty for her. They’d met at the synagogue.
He’d told her over and over again that she could quit, that he had a steady career. He was a button-pusher, and buttons always needed pushing. That’s practically what they were made for.
He needed to show her that his job was serious.
Stone Hen came around at noon and asked if he wanted to get lunch. Stone Hen was probably the person who was Nested Mink-in-Mink yesterday, probably the person who was in the process of befriending him, but Stewart wasn’t a hundred percent sure. Stone Hen seemed a little taller, a little more deadpan.
Somebody had taken Stewart’s turkey sandwich. Fridge theft was a problem at a Facility where everyone wore a mask. Even if you caught someone in the act, what were you going to do? The next day the thief would be someone else.
“Let’s go shopping,” Stone Hen said. He opened someone’s Tupperware, took a whiff, opened another one. “Healthy bullshit. No one brings anything good anymore. Here we go. Like sloppy Joe?”
Stewart was pretty sure he’d never met Stone Hen before. He felt the urge not to disappoint.
“Sloppy Joe is fine.”
All through lunch, Stewart kept changing his mind. One minute Stone Hen seemed like Nested Mink-in-Mink, the next minute he seemed like a stranger. He was a Schrodinger’s cat of a lunch companion; he existed in a friend-and-stranger superposition. Then again, all work friends existed in friend-and-stranger superpositions.
The TV in the corner was showing the Red Bull drone strike. An aerial view of an armed convoy on a road in Iraq (or was it Syria now?), the crosshairs jerking around, and then boom, fireball, one less vehicle. Without the sound, the footage looked old-fashioned and daffy, like something that should have Scott Joplin music. “Red Bull Drone Squad kill #57,” the screen said. “Feel the burn.” Then a small-print exhortation to drink responsibly, which Red Bull was required to show ever since those kids died.
“Wowee zowie,” said Stone Hen, and Stewart was pretty sure it was his friend.
“Question,” Stewart said. “I’m thinking of getting a business card.”
“Right,” said Stone Hen. “Button Pusher. Three years’ experience.”
“I was thinking ‘Button Technologist.’”
“Wait, you’re serious?”
He’d been serious, but he pretended like he wasn’t. “Or maybe Push Tactician. Push Engineer. Button Tsar.”
“Hang on, hang on,” said Stone Hen. “Were you Cart Donkey yesterday? I’m thinking you’re not who I was thinking you are. Why didn’t you say something?”
Candy was pregnant, and she’d bought a beach bag.
“Baby bag,” Candy corrected.
“Oh,” Stewart said. “That makes more sense.”
It had polished hardware and printed leather and about a dozen pockets, which he’d thought were for sunscreen and flip-flops. Who knew that babies required that much paraphernalia? They’d always seemed so portable.
“Are you happy?” Candy said. “You’re gonna be a Father™!”
“Happy? Definitely. Just surprised. Surprised-happy.”
Because they hadn’t had much sex lately. There was the Week of the Chest Cold, the Week of Being Sore from the Sprite Tattoo, the Week of Mysterious Fatigue, and, of course, the Great Deflation.
He fingered the leather tag. “Vuitton. These things hold their value, right? Like on eBay. I’m just thinking if, because, obviously you’ll have to quit Bottoms Up.”
She said, “If it’s a little girl, I want to name her McDonald’s I’m Loving It. If it’s a boy we’ll call him Wally.”
He was always coming to the events of his life like a bewildered hiker, like a man coming out of the trees to find a mountain where he’d expected a lake.
The sonogram showed a fetus in tiny Burberry skinny jeans. That was from the cookies. If she’d recently splurged on gardening equipment, it would have shown a fetus on a ride ‘em mower.
“Look at that little McNugget,” said Candy.
The doctor was beaming. “I’ll just need your John Hancock on the waiver,” she said, handing Stewart a printout with microscopic print.
The waiver said that you or your child or your child’s child couldn’t sue anyone. You couldn’t sue Lego for choky parts or Fantastic Plastic for hormone chemicals. You couldn’t sue Sino-Russiastan, Google-Morgan-Chase, or Leader for spying. You couldn’t sue Amazon Right Fucking Now for delays. You couldn’t sue the Mouseketeer Riot Police for killing you. You couldn’t sue Wolf Blitzer 9.0 or Anderson 720 for bearing false witness. There was a class-action suit of kids against adults-at-large, and your kid couldn’t join.
“What happens if we don’t sign?” he said.
“Then you don’t get the reward points,” said the doctor. “Take a look at the first page.”
He read it over with Candy. You could get 100,000 airline miles, 500 likes on HeadBook, a year in kale. You could get $200 cash or a single Apple decal.
“Whoo!” said Candy. “Miles, baby! We’re going to Funnland!”
She wrapped her arms around Stewart’s neck and kissed away his doubts.
Two days before they were supposed to leave for Funnland, Stewart was called up for HeadBook jury duty. He believed in old-fashioned words like civic duty and justice; they put in his mind the image of an eagle soaring over the Liberty Bell in a desert, with a Dodge truck kicking up dust in the background. He wanted to sad-face the victim, un-like the perp, do his part for his country. He called Delta to reschedule the flight.
“Nine hundred bucks to change it!” he exclaimed. “Forget it. I’ll just buy a new one.”
“I’m sorry sir. We can’t let you do that.”
“Sir, if you bought the ticket, you have to walk onto the plane.”
“Or we arrest you.”
He paid for the rescheduling with a feeling of shutting his eyes and jumping.
“Thank you for flying the friendly skies.”
Candy was furious. She’d already scheduled her vacation. Stewart said she’d be quitting work in a few months anyway, why not just quit now? She said that if they couldn’t go on the original dates, she didn’t want to go at all.
He chalked it up to hormones, but because she was pregnant, he shirked his HeadBook duty—risking the “beheading”—and called Delta back.
“I’m sorry sir. All we have left on that flight is first class.”
“Thanks anyway,” he said.
“We’ll take it,” Candy said. “Tell her we’ll take it.”
Funnland was like every other amusement country, the girls with their feathers and face paint, the old men connected by IV to slot machines, the motorized buffet lines where you could graze without moving and then they flipped you on your back to squirt desert in your mouth. He was trying to give Candy what she wanted, but he found himself tensing up when she ordered a bottle of champagne. He compensated by eating water and vegetables.
On day three, they joined an excursion to the Nutella Fjord and made a friend, a plastic surgeon named Frank. At first glance, Frank seemed to be about thirty-five, but as you spoke to him, you realized that he was more like fifty.
Before he became a doctor, Frank said, he’d called himself Leaf and lived in a tree house, in a commune that shunned property. Frank rambled away the whole bus ride with tales of “life in the canopy,” as he called it. It did Stewart good to laugh with Candy, to see Frank twisted around in his seat addressing him and Candy as a unit.
The Nutella Fjord was magnificent, rippled and gleaming. Beyond it, rubble stretched to the mountains and the mountains shrugged into the sky. The clouds were the color of milk left in a Froot Loops bowl.
Stewart squeezed Candy’s hand. Candy reached for Frank’s hand, who reached for Stewart’s other hand, and the three of them stood still in the chocolaty air.
“This is good,” said Frank. “Just being.”
Later they hiked down the valley and Frank dipped his finger into the fjord.
“Wowie zowie,” he said. “Now see, in the canopy they would have called this unnatural.”
Stewart looked at him. “Have we met before?”
Frank crinkled his eyes. “You know,” he said. “I’m always getting that from people. Take a look at this.” Out of his wallet Frank pulled pictures of some celebrities he thought he looked like. The corners of two pictures were folded and straightened, and two more had tacky black stuff on the surface, as if they’d been riding in Frank’s wallet for years and years.
“You see the resemblance in the strong jaw,” Frank said.
“Maybe if I squint?” said Candy.
But it wasn’t Frank’s face that was familiar; it was the voice.
Frank had been to Funnland before, and after three days, Stewart felt like his guest. Frank made all the plans and chose all the restaurants, and he continually insisted on paying, until Stewart felt childish and insincere for even offering to go Dutch.
Stewart’s face was no mask. Frank must have noticed that he was irritated.
“How about Stewie chooses the next activity,” Frank said on the sixth day at lunch. “Any ideas?”
“Let’s go for a walk,” Stewart said.
“Walk, hmmm. The moon shoes usually book up in advance, but I might know a guy.”
“I was just thinking a regular walk,” Stewart said. “We could go out of the tourist district. To where the real people live. Just walk around.” He wanted to look at houses and imagine living in them with Candy and the little McNugget.
“I’ll tell you what, Steward,” said Frank. “I’ll take you on one heck of a walk.”
“Stewart. With a T.”
“One heck of a walk.”
So it was that Frank, Candy, and Stewart found themselves at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro, the actual mountain. Kilimanjaro was one of Funnland’s big draws. The Central Funn Committee had moved the mountain from Tanzania some years after the Swedes took Everest for skiing.
“Is the altitude okay for Baby?” Stewart said.
“That guy?” said Frank, putting his palm on Candy’s stomach. “Little Sherpa.”
They scaled the mountain Funnland-style, with a party jeep to take them through the rougher patches and Tanzanian guides to carry the Porta-Sauna, but it was still a forbidding walk, and Stewart, who was afraid of heights, stayed behind at base camp 1. The group came back from the summit with giggles and mysterious hints about what they’d seen, going conspicuously silent every time they stood near Stewart. On the bus ride home, Candy admitted that they’d seen nothing special—Frank just told them to pretend.
That night, in the hotel room, Stewart said, “Candy, I think we should tell each other our ID numbers.”
She screwed up one eyebrow. “We haven’t planned anything. Don’t you want a reception and everything? Not in Funnland, Bunny.”
The gap between their beds seemed to expand and he had trouble hearing her voice. He let his eyes go unfocused and looked at the mirrored ceiling. A long-limbed absurdity stared down at him.
Candy had turned her bed into a self-sufficient island, with a pile of magazines, nuts, chocolate, and her laptop. For the first time on that trip, she left her island and crossed the gap and slid into bed next to Stewart.
She nuzzled his neck. “You know I love you, right?”
“Do you want to fuck me?”
He shook his head.
She took his arm and put it around her shoulders. They watched a Funnland violence mash-up for a while, and Stewart felt the thing in his chest, like a frantic flapping firebird, quell down and dim.
“When?” he said quietly.
“Do you want to exchange IDs?”
She sat up, angry. “Can’t you just be in the moment?”
She reached for her purse and fiddled for cigarettes.
“Stay,” he said.
“I just need some air,” she said. “I’m going for a walk.”
She didn’t come back all night.
If you could cheat or be cheated in a relationship, could you also win or lose? Undoubtedly, Stewart was losing. He pretended to believe Candy when she said she was spending the night with her mother, just as she pretended to believe that he believed her. Meanwhile he’d taken on all the cleaning, because chemicals, and shopping, because heavy. He wiped the galaxy of white flecks off the mirror when she was finished brushing and picked the gloms of dried toothpaste from the sink with his fingernail; he brought her tea as she did her evening stretches, placing it in front of her and then literally tiptoeing away, because that was her sacred alone time. And why was he so determined to perfect his victimhood? Because if you couldn’t win at winning, you could at least win at losing.
What had he expected? She had still officially been with someone else for the first three months of Stewart’s relationship with her. And didn’t some prey instinct in him yearn to be predated? What was he, anyway, if not passive, from the Latin pati, to suffer? He wasn’t the smartest or the most athletic guy, wasn’t even the best button-pusher in the Facility, but he was damned if he couldn’t take the most shit. Everyone had their way of avoiding averageness.
Candy was on the living room carpet in her underwear, back arched and baby bump bulging, right leg lunging forward and the left stretching back, like a miracle crawling out of the primordial muck. The TV was telling her what to do: straighten your foot, lock your elbows, etc. He liked the way her thigh muscles slid under the letters of “Obey Your Thirst” as if to emphasize them, the way the shadows got caught in the chubby furrows of the sole of her foot. A new ad tat across her swollen belly read “Behold the Lamb of God,” with a picture of the infant Jesus below, her belly button the baby’s mouth. Some Christian group wanted to reach wayward souls at the strip club.
There were certain rules she would never break: morning stretches in the morning, evening stretches in the evening. One day Candy had woken up and realized she’d worn her day cream all night, and her genuine panic had something to do with why he loved her. He saw the pious, cream-applying rule-follower as the true Candy. Her toughness and moral indifference was a mask. She was cheating on herself. They were both losing.
Fen Troll, who had been Stone Hen and Razor Dove and Chess Board Monkey, wanted to get lunch again. He’d come by several times over the past few months. At least, Stewart thought it was the same guy. Stewart had never been able to shake the sense that the man behind the mask was toying with him.
As they ate, Fen Troll told him a story about a shooting at a bank. The loan officer who got shot tried to hide behind his desk.
“When they found the body,” Fen Troll said, “his fingernails were all ripped out. You know why?”
“He tried to go mole. Scratched at the carpet like an animal.”
Fen Troll nodded thoughtfully. “Lamb of god.”
Stewart put down his fridge-scavenged turkey sandwich. “What?”
“Jesus, the lamb of god.”
“I didn’t know you were religious.”
“No shit. You don’t know me from Adam. I could be your next-door neighbor.”
The TV was blaring with a trailer for the Titanic sequel, the one where Leonardo DiCaprio’s zombie teams up with the Marvel heroes to kill the dinosaurs on the sunken ship, and Kate Winslet shows her tits again. Stewart watched for a bit and stood up.
“I’m getting some water.”
“Obey your thirst,” said Fen Troll.
The men faced off, inasmuch as that was possible when you were wearing a false face. Until that moment, Stewart had never realized how expressive a mask could be. The mouth slot was a grotesque smirk. The eyeholes were taunting and unknowable. Underneath his own mask, Stewart was grinning. He’d found the eye of the storm, the deadly calm in the middle of his anger. For a moment he just enjoyed it. To be washed in anger, to assent to the human animal: this was the purest experience of his life.
Stewart lunged, clawing at Fen Troll’s mask, and the men grappled like angels, beautifully and without pain. But another worker joined the fracas and when Stewart woke up, he could hardly breathe. A fat guy named Candle Lizard had his knees on Stewart’s chest, pressing the life out of him. A crowd of anonymous Samaritans had gathered. Fen Troll was gone.
A security guard shouldered his way to the front, ripped off Stewart’s mask, and slapped him across the face. Some people turned away in shame. Once you’d been unmasked, you could never go back to the Facility. The guards dropped Stewart off at the edge of town, not bothering to remove the plastic restraints that pulled his hands behind his back.
Assuming you have nothing left to lose is a form of optimism masquerading as pessimism, and Stewart had always been an optimist. The handcuffs dissolved in about five minutes, leaving nothing but an imprint on the soft pale flesh of his inner wrist: “Wrongfully fired? Call Connor & Connor.” He walked to Bottoms Up because what else could go wrong?
A sign in the strip club’s window said it was Science Night, and an officious little man at the door handed him an old white lab coat with what appeared to be tire marks on the arm. Behind him, a press of businessbros forced him into a line that wended back and forth across the floor and up the stairs. Maybe two hundred people waited for their turn on the balcony, where five men peered at the stage through grotesque microscopes. The lenses of the microscope wriggled like cobras and were painted to look like phalluses. The stage was screened off from the ground.
Stewart grabbed the red velvet cordon to duck out of line and yelped. The cordon had shocked him. The businessbros laughed and jeered.
No music was playing. The faces of the men ahead of him were tired, lifeless, pilloried by drudgery. They were waiting to look at naked women under a writhing penis-shaped microscope, but you’d think they were in line at the DMV.
Stewart mounted the stairs. He felt strangely calm now. Despair was a sign of life and a long line could beat it out of you. At last he took his place at the microscope. It was as he’d feared: Candy was on stage, pregnant and spreading herself.
Beside him, a man was muttering, urging the women on, his own hand in his pants.
“Candy,” Stewart said into the eyepiece. “Can you hear me?”
She stuck her ass in the air. “Made you look,” it said. “See? This ad worked.”
“I was fired. I pushed my last button at the Facility.”
Now she was on her back, doing some kind of water aerobics on the dry stage. The slightly dirty sole of her foot made his voice catch.
“All I ever,” he said. “All I ever.”
“Tip up or move on, buddy boy,” whispered a man at his shoulder.
She gave no indication of having heard him. But when she stood up, he saw how her lips pressed together in fury.
“Tip up or move on,” the man repeated.
Stewart reached into his pocket but his wallet was gone. One of the businessbros must have reached in and taken it.
Candy didn’t come home for three days. Stewart painted the spare bedroom a teal that was close to white, a soothing color for the baby. He wanted to show her how much better he felt. The memory of his performance in Bottoms Up made the back of his neck heat with shame. No matter. He would bludgeon the specter of that evening with ruthless cheerfulness. He’d already applied for a new job.
When she came home, she wasn’t pregnant anymore.
He grinned, half panic and half joyful expectation. He made a little show of taking her by the shoulders and turning her sideways. Her beige maternity T-shirt hung loose and slack over her flat belly.
“Well?” he said.
As soon as she spoke, he realized she was in a foul mood.
“Where’s the McNugget?” he said.
Her hair was stringy. She’d cried her makeup to paste. He watched her warily as she prepared a tall glass of bitters and soda.
“It’s mostly ice,” she said.
“I didn’t say anything.”
She pushed her glass aside and put her head in her hands. “Ask again.”
“Ask.” But she didn’t wait for him to ask. “I auctioned him.”
“I auctioned off the baby.”
All he could think to say was, “To who?”
“The highest bidder. Toyota.”
“Crash test baby? This is a joke, right?”
“I’m no kind of mother.”
“Candy. You’re pulling my leg.”
He put his back against the wall and slid down. “Without talking to me?”
“You had no say in it.”
“I had no say in it?”
“For fuck’s sake, Stewart. Watching you fool yourself is harder than any of it. You had no say in it.”
After a few minutes he said, “You gave birth?”
“In a manner of speaking.” She shuddered. “They don’t give you a chance to change your mind.”
The Last Untouched Place was in the deep forest of Methamphetistan. To get there, you took a plane to a jeep to a steamer to a canoe to a trailhead to the Indian village.
Stewart started making his travel arrangements a week after he moved out of the apartment he’d shared with Candy. He’d never had so much time nor so little resolve. Without coworkers, partner, or child, the emptiness of his life contracted around his loneliness, or else his loneliness expanded to fill the emptiness, so that he had only the slimmest of margins in which to get things done. He would scroll through flights and, feeling unequal to the decision before him, fix upon a walk, only to discover how tired he was before he could find his coat. Once, he pushed back his exhaustion long enough to make it out the door. The exhaustion came back with reinforcements in the dog park, and he lay under a witchy tree, where a black Bichon Frise and a white pug grappled on their hind legs as if dancing. The dogs ended their embrace to sniff Stewart but decided that, as a piece of territory, he was not worth marking.
Stewart managed to make his travel arrangements at last. As for food and shelter, he planned nothing. The abundance of Methamphetistan’s forests was well-known. Trees grew bananas big as lifeboats. Yellow birds candied themselves in the equatorial sun and dropped dead at your feet. Cranberry toads steeped in springs until the water was sweet and tart.
If these wonders proved to be rumors, what of it? The real abundance was of absence: no black mirrors or electric hum, no user agreements or reward points. No ad tats. A surfeit of peace. A feast of remoteness. A thanksgiving of privacy. Stewart would gorge himself and die.
We all know what happened next: how Stewart was hailed with joyful dancing by the Indians with red face paint. How Maya, his translator and guide, explained that they’d been waiting for the tall white god. How Stewart was conveyed on a papaya-wood litter to the Shrine of Last Resort. And when the old women pulled back silver ferns to reveal the big red button that grew out of the ground like a mushroom, Stewart knew that he’d found his destiny.
He was given nothing but water and laxative bark for a week. By the time the old women called him, his teeth chattered the rhythm of his fever and he could no longer stand. But his body was pure and his purpose firm, and when the women pulled back the silver ferns to reveal the button once more, he raised his finger.
“Turn that off,” said Candy from the kitchen. She swooped a spoonful Actual Blueberries™ into a baby’s mouth.
“You’re going to miss it,” said Frank.
“I feel terrible for him,” she said.
On the television, Stewart jabbed the red button with an expression of fierce defiance. A fart with a dying fall sounded from his seat. Stewart looked between his legs. The Indians fell to the ground laughing.
Candy walked into the room.
“This is the way the world ends,” said Frank. “Not with a bang but a whimper.”
The BuzzShare announcer came out of the forest and shook Stewart’s hand.
In the other room, the baby began to cry.
“I’m taking Wally for a walk,” said Candy.
Years later, Wally would look at the BuzzShare video called, “This Guy Thinks He’s Pushing A Button that Ends the World.” There were hundreds of comments—some vile, many stupid, most kind. To find such thoughtfulness in the godforsaken wasteland of a BuzzShare comments section surprised Wally. He intended to read through every single one, but a third of the way through, he clicked on an ad for tropical fruit snacks.
Tom Sale is an artist and college art instructor in Texas. He has taught college art classes for over 25 years (except for a few years of a mid life crisis when he ran away to be a zookeeper). Sale has also created an entire fictional world around his alter ego, Pinky Diablo. In this guise he creates watercolors of dancing skeletons and carves skulls out of vintage spoons. Sale’s largest project to date was an entire fictional exhibit based around the life of Crimean era nurse, Florence Nightingale. This exhibit combined written texts, miniature dioramas, and objects both found and made “from” Miss Nightingale. It was exhibited at The Webb Gallery in Waxahachie, Texas.